There was an audible gasp at Tuesday’s Federation of Early Childhood Providers protest outside the Dáil as Fiona Treacy-Bowe spoke about skipping a round of IVF to put the money into her Cherry Blossom Montessori preschool in Castleknock.
About 3,000 service providers, their staff and some parents gathered to highlight what they see as the inadequacy of the current State funding for early-years centres, enough people to require unscheduled road closures for nearly three hours as they listened to a mix of political and sometimes deeply personal speeches.
Ms Treacy-Bowe struck a particular chord, it was clear, as she spoke about her struggle to adapt her services, she said, to make Government funding work for her.
The general theme, though, that the money on offer through the various funding strands associated with the system known as core funding could be heard from almost any service owner in the crowd.
“It’s not just even about core funding,” said Lorraine Dunne of Tiny Tots in Drimnagh. “There’s the constant changes in regulations ... schemes coming in left, right and centre, all to complete admin for parents. But still last week we were left short because some parents didn’t provide their confirmations and so I didn’t get paid. That shouldn’t be on us. Why are we punished for that?”
Excessive regulation and insufficient funding –,particularly for the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme, which provides three hours of care a day, 38 weeks a year, free of charge to parents but with a set fee being paid to the provider – were among the most commonly raised issues.
Rates of pay, the premiums paid to graduates in a sector traditionally built on less well qualified staff and a fee freeze many providers say has forced them to continue to charging rates set long before the option of an increase was taken away were among the others.
“We’re just surviving,” said Ms Dunne. “We’re treading water. I have no wifi or phone at the moment because I couldn’t afford to pay the bill and then I have a solicitor’s letter because we had our fire inspection and I couldn’t afford to pay the fee for that. We’re open 19 years but the last three or four have been the toughest.”
A few feet away, Lorraine Brennan, a parent and client, listened while looking after her two young sons, Mannix and Malachy.
She is one of the service users who came to express support and she couldn’t overstate her appreciation for the way her kids are looked after.
“They are absolutely fantastic,” she said of the carers. “We’re two full-time working parents and we are absolutely terrified that they might close. They have been very transparent about the struggles they have had over the past 18 months, last year their rent went up but they couldn’t increase their fees. We pay €900 a month for the two boys and they are so well looked after. We’re exceptionally lucky. That’s why I’m here today.”
Valerie O’Reilly, owner of the Rainbow Day Care Centre in Sandyford, said she was not under pressure in the way so many of the other providers said they were, but the payments for ECCE services have barely gone up in a decade and that portion of her business now barely covers its costs.
“Core funding is fantastic,” she said. “It’s brilliant to see families getting funding that they really need. But the price increase is a problem. We hadn’t increased our fees since 2016 and all of our costs have gone up a lot since then. So we are here today to say, ‘look, if you want quality services, there’s just not enough funding there’.”
Earlier, on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, the Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, acknowledged Ireland still lags behind the majority of European countries when it comes to spending on the sector and said he does hope to provide more funding.
“We are way behind and that’s why I’ve made it a key goal of my time as Minister to address that. That’s why we’ve secured an extra €400 million over the last three years for investment in childcare. It’s why, when I told childcare providers I’d provide them with that extra money in core funding, one of the conditions was that they had to pay staff better. That’s how we got designated wage rates for childcare workers. But there’s a long way to go.”
Pay rates remain a bone of contention and Siptu condemned the likely imposition of a 5 per cent increase that it rejected, arguing that Government money allocated specifically for that purpose provides scope for significantly higher rates.
Mr O’Gorman, meanwhile, makes little secret of his frustration that a portion of providers – the federation represents a minority and the larger representative bodies did not participate in the protest – do not give much credit for the ground that has been made up so far and his department says many of the figures quoted by the organisation and its members are simply inaccurate.
The Taoiseach, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that the protest was “not warranted” and had caused “great inconvenience” for parents.
Its main organiser, federation chair Elaine Dunne, said, however, it would all happen again in four weeks if substantially more funding hasn’t been agreed by then.